Apologize as the First Resort

Apology is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it’s less costly than the alternatives

What exactly should leaders do when they make a mistake or suffer a setback? The surprising answer is to apologize. Apologizing, accepting responsibility, and acting in a transparent manner yields significant benefits. Leaders who apologize just have better outcomes than those who don’t.

A Tale of Two CEOs

Within months of each other, two CEOs came under fire for misstating their academic credentials. One CEO was forced to step down while the other is still at the helm. David Edmonson, CEO of RadioShack Corp., admitted that the company’s web site gave him a credential he never actually earned. At yellow pages publisher R.H. Donnelley Corp., chairman and CEO David Swanson admitted that he never actually earned a degree from the university he attended, despite what the company said in news releases and what it posted on the web site.

Edmonson now acknowledges a candid and immediate apology might have saved his job. Currently CEO of Fort Worth based Easysale, Inc., Edmonson admits he made a mistake by not immediately correcting the biography that RadioShack distributed to the news media and posted on its Website. When a story appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in February 2006, Edmonson should have just apologized. Instead he made three errors. He delayed. He got defensive. And he tried to explain. These behaviors lad to a death spiral from which no CEO can recover.

Over at R.H. Donnelly, Swanson went to his board before the issue became a public. Swanson accepted total responsibility and apologized. The company nervously issued a news release to correct the record, but it never became a problem. At the time, news reports about the incident praised Swanson for his candor.

Transparency is Liberating

Another benefit of apology is that it reassures people that the leader is on their side. Leaders who acknowledge fault with a genuine apology argue against people’s suspicion that they are indifferent to the pain their companies have caused. From this position, people are more likely to forgive.

For example, at a recent sales conference of Cessna Aircraft Company, in front of 400 or so employees, dealers, and partners, chairman, president, and CEO Jack Pelton assigned himself a failing grade in the area of customer service. “From a leadership standpoint, I don’t think I’m personally doing enough and for my efforts in customer service and support, I believe I deserve an F,” he told the astonished crowd. “Customer service and support starts in my office and I apologize to you for not having done more.” Then Pelton described the steps he was personally taking to correct the problem.

The CEO’s humility made it easier for Cessna to take corrective action. Cessna, the world’s largest manufacturer of general aviation airplanes, took Pelton’s self-assessment to heart and beefed up its customer service and support. “It won’t do for a CEO to admit a weakness and then it’s off to the golf course,” Pelton says. Accountability must be followed by performance. “There is strength in recognizing a weakness, articulating it, and then determining to do something about it,” he adds.

Apology is the ultimate transparent act. It’s a powerful, even transformational, act of leadership. Apology is an indicator of confidence and strong people skills focused on repairing strained relationships. Leaders who display compromise and reconciliation traits tend to advance in any organization. In the same way, people with undefended personalities who are not afraid to confront and learn from mistakes also tend to be more successful.

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